Of all the bizarre transgressions used to shame social media foes in our increasingly hysterical society, the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is surely the most confused.
The idea that you can somehow steal (for that is what ‘appropriate’ means in this context) someone’s culture is silly even by academic standards, and that’s saying something.
It’s how culture works.
I mean this in a technical sense. Bear with me for a moment as I wax anthropological, calling up memories of my long gone university days.
‘Culture’ is a sort of tool kit. A complex of shared behaviours, values, norms and beliefs which are passed down to us through learning, immersion and imitation, and that ultimately enables our survival.
We absorb our culture like sponges as children. And we undergo various rites of passage which integrate us into our particular role as a full member of our community.
I’m not just talking about tribal initiation rites here. Rites of passage in Western society include coming of age ceremonies like graduation, marriage, or an old-fashioned debutante’s ball. Religious rites of passage you might be familiar with include first communion or confirmation for Catholics, and bar and bat mitzvah for Jews. Even going through military boot camp is a rite of passage from civilian to military life.
That’s a fascinating topic to dig into, but we’re veering slightly off track. Let’s get back to this bizarre notion of ‘stealing’ someone’s culture.
A culture is a sort of operating system for humans. You can think of your biological heritage — your genes, your temperament, etc — as the hardware you’ve got to work with, and culture as the software package you’ve inherited as a member of your particular group. It’s a very loose analogy, but you get the idea.
Some cultures are more successful than others at surviving in a broad range of environments. Some are best suited to a particular time or place, while others seem to thrive more broadly. Some are closed and rigid, and others are more open to change.
What’s that? Did I say ‘change’?
Absolutely. Cultures change for several reasons. New challenges, like a changing climate, receding Ice Age glaciers, or the loss of a particular food source might force change or extinction.
Old ways of living in that environment may no longer fit current conditions, and so the cultural toolkit associated with those vanished elements may simply fade away.
Cultures also change through interaction with other cultures.
Trade spreads ideas as well as objects. You can see this at work in stone age tool technology. The earliest example of deliberately made stone toolkits we have dates back at least 2.6 million years. This Oldowan toolkit (so called because the first specimens were found at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania) include things like hammerstones, sharp stone flakes and stone cores.
That was good enough for our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years, and then something changed.
Somewhere around 200,000 years ago, a completely new toolkit shows up. These so-called Acheulean tools were much more sophisticated. The same sort of objects you’d see in the Oldowan toolkit were worked using bone, antler or wood to flake and reshape stone cores in precise ways, which gave sharper cutting edges, as well as bifacial tools (tools with a cutting edge on both sides), among other things.
This new toolkit spread very quickly throughout Africa, the near East and Europe as groups migrated, traded, and exchanged ideas with other communities.
Someone had to think up that new way of making stone tools in the first place. Perhaps several people thought it up around the same time. But it spread as cultures interacted with each other and clashed.
“Hold up there, Murd!” you might be thinking. “Those cave-dwelling bastards were guilty of cultural appropriation!”
By our increasingly bizarre standards, yes.
Cultures learn from each other. That’s how cultures evolve, and that’s how humanity has survived and thrived and spread across the globe.
I realize this may send woke grievance archeologists screaming into their safe spaces. Perhaps they’d be better off questioning the smoke and mirrors they were taught by shameless professors who use prose nonsense generators to carve out a tenured career in the increasingly hollow halls of academia.
Like it or not, it’s true anyway.
Cultures shift and change through exchange with other cultures, and travelers do, too. Anyone who’s done a long journey in a foreign culture can relate to this.
My first real journey was a revelation in that regard. I came back from months in Central America with a very different view of my own culture. People in Ottawa seemed so cold compared to Latin Americans, and so rushed. My society felt far too orderly, too. Beholden to rules that rubbed off some of the humanity I’d seen in distant corners of the isthmus.
Travelling in Central America caused me to take a fresh look at my own culture with ‘outside eyes’, and mostly what I saw were its flaws.
Long term residence in other cultures taught me to appreciate the other side of that equation: the things my culture does well. For example, Canadians are entrepreneurial people. Not as aggressive as our American neighbours, but far closer to their dynamism than to the stagnancy I see in German workplaces, where turgid bureaucracy bogs down even the simplest process in thick volumes of pointless rules.
Traveling and living abroad have taught me new sets of skills, new customs and new habits that I’ll take back to my own country. And perhaps I’ll even end up passing some of them on to my friends and family, too.
Unfortunately, in our increasingly neurotic society, this is considered a form of racism, or colonialism, or some other fashionable -ism, rather than a natural human process.
During my years in Japan, I made miso soup and rice in my tiny apartment. That was my daily staple food. Was I adapting to the local culture like any good traveler or any good guest? Adopting the norms and day to day life of my hosts, not just because their food is delicious and healthy, but also because that culture might have something to teach me?
Or was I committing the sin of ‘cultural appropriation’ — or worse yet, ‘colonizing’ the tiny space I lived in, polluting it with my arrogant Western ways?
Should I instead have ‘stayed in my lane’, as they say today, locked inside the strict boundaries of my culture of origin? Should I have lived on Canadian food in the far western suburbs of Tokyo? What if I couldn’t find butter tarts and nanaimo bars? What then?
And what of those foreign girls I saw wandering down the street at summer festivals, dressed in yukata, a beautifully patterned light cotton kimono? Were they guilty of ‘cultural appropriation’? Or were they simply doing as the Japanese do, and getting into the spirit of the festival?
They certainly weren’t offending everyone around them. On the contrary, festival goers were pleased to see visitors so enthusiastically participating in their traditions.
Dressing up in the paraphernalia of someone’s culture in order to mock them is something different. Back in my day, that was seen as ‘being an asshole’.
Celebrating someone else’s culture, participating in it, learning from it, and maybe even bringing a part of that cultural toolkit into your own life is a form of exchange, and a form of high praise.
Cross-cultural curiosity has also inspired enduring works of art. Star Wars, the film that shaped my childhood (and that possibly planted the seeds of my interest in desert landscapes) took inspiration from Japanese films, most notably Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.
Kurosawa took inspiration from Shakespeare, reinterpreting Macbeth and King Lear in Warring States-era Japan (the films are Throne of Blood and Ran, respectively). He also played on American Westerns in the same way. Seven Samurai is the The Magnificent Seven set in feudal Japan.
American Westerns took inspiration from Kurosawa, too, transforming Yojimbo into Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars.
These are great films — and surely guilty of ‘cultural appropriation’ by the standards of today’s moral puritans.
Music is much richer for cultural interaction, too.
We wouldn’t have rock ’n roll if black American musical traditions like gospel, blues, R&B and boogie woogie hadn’t met and commingled with country music to create a bewildering variety of sub genres, which have gone on to influence and be influenced by other world music traditions.
The American linguist John McWhorter has written on this with regard to music and language, arguing that the idea of ‘theft’ is misleading when applied to something like culture, which is not a limited resource. On the contrary, ‘blending’ and ‘borrowing’ is how languages evolve.
What would The Beatles have said to someone who told them, “Put down that sitar! You can’t try other people’s instruments!”
“You can’t try on other people’s hats” is just as silly.
In an ugly, contradictory world like that, a high school kid from Utah is mobbed online for wearing a Chinese-style dress to her prom, but global leaders get a free pass when Xi Jinping kits them out in Chinese-style attire at a China-hosted APEC summit.
Could we please drop this nonsense about ‘cultural appropriation’?
It’s an attempt to reduce all interactions between cultures to the usual power hierarchies of dominance and oppression that so obsess leftist academics.
All you’re doing when you throw around that accusation is exposing your own strange determination to shove people into an either/or ‘victim’ or ‘victimizer’ worldview, and sticking a deliberate spoke in someone else’s curiosity about the world.
Why not learn from one another and celebrate one another’s unique heritage instead?